BP Gulf spill: the end of the phoney war

We are at the beginning of the end of the phoney war on the BP oil spill. We seem to be in sight of beginning the real shooting. Here’s why…

Previously I have remarked that if this oil spill was a real ecological disaster (wide-reaching, long-lasting, deeply-damaging), then it would be the first of its kind. Similarly, if it deeply impacted the oil firm concerned, it would be a first.

Apparently changes in the weather and the onset of the hurricane season are about to reveal whether this really has the makings of a huge disaster. After that we probably won’t know how for at least a year how bad the impact has been. The trouble with ecological disasters is that they operate on rather longer timescales than our mass media attention span.

Of course, it is inevitable that at this point the media response would be as it has been. There is, on the one hand, a sort of awed appetite for the potential horror which it portrays as having already happened when (as yet) it has not. There is, on the other, a good deal of sensible comment which tries to keep a grip on reality (say from Bronwen Maddox in The Times). But, weeks into the disaster, I have only heard two people speak accurately as to the damage so far. President Obama (in a rare moment of stoicism) early on told a press conference that the beaches of the Gulf were mostly open for business, no problem. And this morning, an eco-tourism specialist, taking a BBC man for a trip to the damage, remarked for the BBRC’s Radio 4 Today programme how little there had been. The coast had so far “dodged the bullet”.

Quite. The serious damage is up ahead. Again, this spill looks unique. I don’t know of another when there has been so much effort put into preparing beaches for an onslaught of oil. Let’s hope it works. (Here, by the way, is a good site for regional news on the spill: it’s Louisiana’s own.) 

I am pretty sure that President Obama is going to be a big loser from this event. There has been a lot of comment about how the American public expect their president to be a miracle worker or at least an Action Man. He himself says his job is not to “vent” (an unfortunate turn of phrase in this context).  But he has been doing little else since the blow-out. That and scapegoating. I do not know American public opinion well, but it seems to me quite possible that the American public wouldn’t mind if their president manned-up, grew a couple, and had an attitude which showed a little more grace. Anyway, his regulators are likely to be in much the same soup as British Petroleum and he won’t be able to wash his hands of it. Meantime, even self-interest should make him hope that BP thrives: he insists it has big bills to pay.

BP are of course caught whichever way things go and whatever they say. They’ll have to defend their legal and financial patch when the time comes, and be careful not to give hostages to fortune on the way. They have to be genuinely sorrowful and even penitent, as well. Not at easy dance.

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Publication date

04 June 2010